Much has been said about the relationship between faith and reason. Many times faith and reason seem to be opposed. What is the Christian to do when faced with a claim that seems to have irrefutably evident reason behind it but contradicts the teachings of Scripture? If we believe that the Bible alone (when properly interpreted) is our infallible authority, what are we to do when met with claims such as Evolution?
As I’ve thought of this I’ve never really found an answer I’m comfortable giving. Though I hold both faith and reason to be important, the problem remains of what to do when they conflict. I recently remembered a book we discussed in my ethics class at Cedarville. It was by H. Richard Niebuhr called Christ and Culture. The book discussed five approaches to the relationship between Christ and Culture from a historical and ethical perspective. The details of the book are huge wash in my brain, but I remembered them enough to look up what the five views were. As I did so, I thought it might be beneficial to extrapolate these five categories into five views of the relationship between Faith and Reason. This probably could alternatively be viewed as an analysis of the views of the relationship between Faith and Philosophy.
The following two views are considered the polar opposites of this model.
Christ Against Culture
A Christ against culture view shows an antagonistic relationship between the Christian Church and the “World”. The Christian’s duty is to separate from the culture as much as possible. The most stark example of the in modern times exists in the Midwestern USA in the region known as “Amish Country”. I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, but the Amish are most often characterized as rejecting modern conveniences and cultural influences for the sake of living pure lives among themselves. Think M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village”.
Faith against Reason
Christians holding to faith against reason would tend to ignore reason altogether. To this believer, it doesn’t matter what evident reason states. Science is irrelevant to this person. All that matters is the direct word of God. These people are often pejoratively referred to as “Bible Thumpers” and “Fundamentalists”. While they might possibly deserve a commendation for their desire to truly believe what God says, their view has some major problems.
The first problem is that while I agree that everything in the Bible is true, this does not mean that everything that is true is in the Bible. This leaves open the possibility of finding things to be true in both Biblical and non-biblical sources that don’t seem to line up. To their harm, Faith against Reason proponents ignore the non-biblical arena. I might ask them, where does medicine come from? Were there recipes for fried Chicken in Hezekiah?
The second problem is more important. Above I made a statement that the Bible is our sole authority. Wait, no I didn’t! I said that the Bible when properly interpreted is our sole infallible authority. This implies two things. First is that there are other sources of authority outside the Bible! Just because a source of authority is fallible doesn’t mean it’s not a source of authority. It should be understood that it’s not perfect, but it can still be trusted to a certain degree. This camp completely cuts off access to any truth that the realm of reason can bring us.
The second implication is that the Bible’s authority is only infallible when it is properly interpreted. Now this presents a bit of a challenge, because the question rises of how we know we have properly interpreted the Scripture. There’s a whole field of Christian epistemology regarding this called “Hermeneutics”. One view of hermeneutics is roughly stated as “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” This can be a good rule of thumb at times, but it can also get you into trouble! Many passages are taken extremely out of context because of this. What’s the plain sense of Ecclesiastes? Song of Solomon?! Nevertheless I personally have come across some strange theological beliefs that were formed using this very hermeneutic but don’t stack up against the rest of Scripture. This line of thinking is dangerous! By contrast a proper hermeneutic takes into account other sources of authority to help us keep our interpretation of Scripture in check, and one of these very important sources of authority is reason.
Unfortunately because the members of this camp seem to be the most loudly outspoken group of believers, they have created a stereotype in the media and popular opinion that all Christians think this way. It’s one thing to have a poor reputation among unbelievers because you uncompromisingly stand for the truth. It’s another thing altogether to have a poor reputation among unbelievers because you uncompromisingly stand for an idiotic way of thinking – even if you’re defending the truth. There are far “smarter” ways to stand for Truth. I think the whole of Christianity could be served by abandoning this camp altogether.
Anyway, I digress. I promise that I won’t give any more commentary on the validity of a view. I think Faith against Reason is wholly untenable, but from here on out I will try to be strictly informative and allow you to make your own decisions. As you read these, examine your own way of thinking and try to identify which of these best describes you. If you fall into this first camp, I have no intention to offend you. Please open mindedly heed my criticisms and if you have counter points you would like to make, I’m more than willing to hear them.
Christ of Culture
Jesus is seen as the embodiment of the greatest human aspirations, as the ultimate hero of human culture, as representing the very best which culture can give.
The Christ of Culture sees Christ as the epitome of culture. By extension therefore, Appreciation for the highest of culture is also appreciation for Christ.
Faith of Reason
Faith is the pinnacle of reason. I think this can take multiple forms. In one way faith clings unflinchingly to the findings of reason as though they were Scripture. In another way faith considers itself to be the highest function of reason. In this view faith and reason are not opposed. Faith and reason properly done will correspond. They will always complement each other, and the best and highest examples of each will be identical to each other. My only comment about this is that while it may be true from a proverbial birds-eye view, those of us here “on the ground” (so to speak) definitely encounter times when faith and reason collide in conflict. I think the Faith of Reason response to such situations would be to claim that either the faith or the reason involved in the conflict is in some way flawed. This may be true, but it’s hard to prove. In any case I think this camp may have the fewest members – though I have a friend in mind who I’m pretty sure fits into this one like a glove.
The Middle Ground
The rest of the views fall somewhere in the middle between “Against” and “Of”.
Christ above Culture
Christ is generally aloof from Culture. He is authoritative over it, but he allows it to run its course, stooping only occasionally and briefly to get involved if he needs to correct the course of events. The Incarnation would be the most obvious example. This is almost a blend of Deism and Christianity. It also lends itself to Openness theology. This is one of the most often used views when it comes to the problem of pain.
Faith above Reason
Faith and Reason, while opposed, have nothing really to do with each other. Faith deals in a realm that is transcendent and unattainable by reason. Reason deals with the mundane and “nitty-gritty” of life, while faith soars on high plains and deals with greater issues that even the philosophers have had to scratch their heads at. When there are points of conflict between faith and reason, it’s quite simply obvious that reason is overstepping its bounds. Faith is correct, and reason just needs to shut up. I think there are definite weaknesses to this position, but there are some elements to truth in it. I think one of my top 5 all time favorite quotes might fit into this category, though I’ve not analyzed all of its stator’s other quotes to see if the whole of his philosophy falls into this category. This is from Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
…Whether there is anything behind the things science observes – something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question. If there is “Something Behind,” then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make.
Christ and Culture in Paradox
This is the classic Reformed position. St. Augustine said it best. There are two cities. The City of Man represents all of the worlds desires and achievements with all its strength and might. The City of God represents his work and achievement inhabited by those who trust in him. These two cities are currently in an ongoing war which will not be over until Christ’s second return at which point he makes an end to the City of Man forever. While the Christian is a true resident of the City of God, he is currently a resident of the City of Man and must live in this life as best as he can, but without holding himself distant as the “Against” crowd does, for man must see us as ambassadors from the City of God, but the Christian ever looks to the day when the war will be ended.
Faith and Reason in Paradox
This view acknowledges that all truth is God’s truth, and that while there is great truth that is found outside Scripture there is also great error found outside Scripture. The believer’s does not see his struggle is as being against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of darkness, and as long as the prince of the power of the air is allowed to roam free, those who hold to reason apart from faith will always find occasion to come to conclusions that are in opposition to the claims of Scripture. Therefore, although truth is absolute, and perhaps the “Of” crowd is right that proper reason will point to this truth, there will be times when the claims of reason conflict with the claims of faith. “Reason” in this case not referring to reason itself but to those who would wield it in such a way. Moreover the believer sees these conflicts not merely as innocuous disagreements arrived at from different presuppositions. Rather, they are antagonistic and militant. When this happens, evident reason may be sought and given to defend the claims of Faith, but no matter how valid the reason used, the unbeliever will not hear it, for his eyes are blinded by Satan. The Christian believes that he must stand firm, always ready to give an answer, but also believing that it is God who gives light to the eyes. The believer in this camp looks for the day when all will be made clear by the coming of Christ and the final revelation of his truth.
Christ Transforming Culture
This optimistic view believes that the corruption in the culture can be defeated through the work of the Church. This takes many forms. Classically this has been seen in the eschatology called “Post-millennialism”, which holds that the Church will triumph over the enemies of God in this world’s age and will usher in the Millennial reign of Christ at which point he will return to take the throne. Contemporarily, I think the best example would be the so-called “Emergent Church”. I use the term loosely because the movement is amorphous, but what I’m referring to are those believers who believe it is the job of Christians to enact social reform – particularly with regard to caring for the poor. Another contemporary example would be the Theonomists, the most radical of whom believe it is God’s will for the United States of America to adopt the Mosaic Law as found word-for-word in the Pentateuch as the law of the land. There are, however, far more moderate groups out there who simply desire to reach out into the world and positively affect it for the gospel and kingdom of Christ. In fact this is the most “Cedarville” of the group.
Faith transforming Reason
In this camp, the believer grounds himself solidly in the faith, but makes use of the tools of reason and is in fact well versed in them. He makes it his aim to engage with those of the world and believes that through faithful proper use of reason he can begin to win over the unbelievers to seeing the validity of the claims of faith. He makes every effort to do so in an evangelistic way, but without violating the rules of the medium. He is optimistic that it will be shown through his efforts that the truths of the scripture are indeed true.
Where do you stand? I think I find myself most squarely in the “Paradox” group, though I have some leaning toward “Transforming” and “Of”, with even a nod to “Above”. I’m certain I’m not “Against”. I think it’s interesting to node that “Against”, “Paradox” and “Transforming” all believe that there is a conflict, while “Of” and “Above” disagree. Is there a conflict? Well, if all truth is God’s truth, then ultimately there is no conflict. But as I mentioned, while there may ultimately be no conflict, there certainly are temporal conflicts that arise in the moment. I agree with the Paradox crowd that these conflicts are not simply misunderstandings, but are in fact battles. This is because there’s a distinction between reason itself and those who use reason. Men who use reason apart from faith are corrupted by sin. They are therefore susceptible to being flat our wrong, but are also guided by sinful desires. Furthermore, they have eyes that are blinded by the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4). So while there may be no conflict between, say, Christ and Science, there are certainly conflicts between Christians and Scientists.
I think the main difference between the three camps that acknowledge the conflict is their attitude toward it. The “Against” crowd is pessimistic. They believe that reason is uncompromisingly tainted and not only is it beyond redemption it will corrupt the believer if he dabbles in it too long. The “Transforming” group is optimistic. Reason is tainted, but we can clean it up by doing some good solid faith-based reason in opposition to the taint. While the “Paradox” group is realistic and patient. They understand that they have a duty to be faithful, but that until Christ appears the influence of darkness on reason will never be gone.
Thoughts? Insights? Questions? Comments? Snide Remarks? I’d love to hear them!
- “The Enduring Problem of Christ and Culture”, Bruce L. Geunther – mostly for his list and explanation of the five views.
- Wikipedia article on H. Richard Niebuhr – for general reference.
2 thoughts on “Faith and Reason”
Thanks. Well presented.
For what its worth I agree with your conclusion
Thanks Bob! 🙂
Comments are closed.